Ah, summer. Watermelons, clambakes, sultry nights and eight-legged freaks.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, what is summer without enemies the size of the WorldCom catastrophe to scare you out of your seat at the cineplex?
Every summer, it happens: The end of the world comes to a theater near you. The Cold War commences anew (this being distinct from the regional power grid and your air conditioning). The natives of Planet Naboo get restless. Asteroids and comets break free and plummet toward Earth. And the spider or ant you swat at the picnic comes back 9,000 times bigger to strut its hairy legs across the big screen.
Screaming and white-knuckling at the cinema is a time-honored tradition that transforms the movie palace into a tummy-tightening amusement-park ride, a roller coaster of the imagination that ensures you will jump out of your seat, clutch the arms of the stadium chair, and for a few hours, forget all about the big and hairy problems waiting outside.
Today's thrills-and-chills pictures hark back (and in some cases, shamelessly steal from) the screamers and knuckle-biters of yesteryear.
This summer's "Reign of Fire" roars out of the apocalyptic genre with fire-breathing dragons that have scorched the Earth and left a ragged band of survivors holed up in a crumbling castle in northern England. It's "The Road Warrior" meets "Puff the Magic Dragon" meets the Hayman fire. It's "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" combined with elements of "The Quiet Earth," the 1985 New Zealand pic that finds only three people alive after the world ends when (in a plot twist far more plausible than dragons) a government experiment goes awry.
There are those who believe the apocalyptic genre has its roots in social sickness and springs from a collective fantasy to wipe out the mad, mad world and begin life again in a new Eden without guns, lobbyists or Martha Stewart's stock problems. But the urge for apocalypse may be more personal than that. Films like "Independence Day," the 1996 Roland Emmerich film in which Earth is threatened by hovering alien ships, or "Armageddon," in which Bruce Willis' veteran oil rigger is pressed into service in outer space to stop an asteroid (with help from our friend the nuclear bomb), or 1998's "Deep Impact," in which Robert Duvall's old-time astronaut must stop a comet, speak as plainly to the common desire for a reinvention of the self.
Catastrophe brings terror, chaos and death for some, but it also brings transformation and rebirth to those who survive it. "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact" made heroes of ordinary men. It is a story we never tire of and one that bears increasing relevance on our daily lives. In "Reign of Fire," Christian Bale's Quinn first comes face to face with the dragon as a little boy. He lives long enough to battle the big menace and to experience optimism, "a new development," as he calls it, that is a consequence of having survived the worst. Watching movies (and reading many of today's headlines), it is natural to wonder who each of us might become if faced with hijackers, men lighting their sneakers on fire, or armed men at the airline ticket counter. Will we be the townsfolk described by Matthew McConaughey's dragon slayer? The ordinary people who "rose up and took 'em down"? On the screen at the cineplex, someone does it for us. Someone shows us how. And the results, if it is a mainstream Hollywood product, are inevitably reassuring. The scorched Eden is saved, and the new confidence in those who defeated the threat creates a renewed sense of imperviousness. As Quinn puts it, "If they come ... they'll burn; we'll build."
The sci-fi fantasies "Eight-Legged Freaks" and "Men in Black II" are derivative of the 1950s sci-fi screamers that came before, including Gordon Douglas' 1954 classic "Them!"; the great Japanese wrecking-ball fest that is 1954's "Gojira" (titled "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" in America); Don Siegel's 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"; Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant 1963 screamer, "The Birds"; Steven Spielberg's "Jaws"; Spielberg's 1993 f/x blockbuster "Jurassic Park" (and the 1997 sequel, "The Lost World"); and Frank Marshall's 1990 eight-legged freakout "Arachnophobia." Each of these films is essentially the story of nature biting back while tweaking mankind's guilty conscience. Each plays off the idea that humans, the master race, have polluted, pillaged, plundered, chemically altered, genetically mutated, radiated and overcontrolled Eden for personal gain and generally made life harder (if not impossible) for other species. The creepy, crawly wild-kingdom genre gives nature the upper hand -- for about two hours.
Yes, movie lovers. It's summer.
Hold on to your popcorn until the menace is squashed.
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